A 'one-line actor' reveals the thankless and grueling life of Hollywood's countless extras

·13 min read
confessions of a working actor 2x1
Lukas DiSparrow. Walter Vincenti Photography; Netflix; Samantha Lee/Insider
  • Lukas DiSparrow is a Polish actor who's been trying to grind out a career in Hollywood for years.

  • Deemed a "one-line actor," he's been an extra in "Harry Potter" movies and had minor TV roles.

  • DiSparrow gave us a look into the reality of his struggle and how it's even harder in the pandemic.

  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

Lukas DiSparrow was finally going to do it. The 5-foot-2 Polish actor, who had been bullied as a kid and was told his whole career that the most he'd ever be is a background actor, was about to share the screen with Chris Hemsworth.

Inside a London soundstage in June 2018, DiSparrow was sitting patiently in his trailer on the set of "Men In Black: International." He'd already been in the hair-and-makeup trailer for three hours, being transformed into a bald purple-skinned alien. He was now waiting for the latest changes to his scene, having already received four versions of the script.

After auditioning for the film, DiSparrow landed a one-line role as an alien who speaks briefly with Hemsworth's Agent H character during a club scene. DiSparrow was again called back later to appear in a larger scene, after his character is arrested by Agent C (Rafe Spall) and Agent H gets him out of hot water.

Despite waiting for hours to return to set, nothing was going to take him out of his good mood. The assistant director, who was checking in on DiSparrow, had even recognized him from his first job eight years before as an extra on "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1."

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Finally, DiSparrow was called in. "Lukas is on the way to set," he heard a production assistant say on their walkie-talkie as he was led to the sound stage.

He was set up in a small tent next to Hemsworth and his costar, Tessa Thompson. Then more waiting.

DiSparrow even met his stand-in, which was a bizarre moment, he said, because for most of his career he himself had been a stand-in. And then there was more waiting.

Thirty minutes later, a production assistant he'd never met before approached DiSparrow. It was time, he thought. He was finally going to have his Hollywood moment. It was the moment that would change his career, and maybe even his life.

"Sorry, but they decided not to film the scene, so you can go home," the assistant told DiSparrow matter-of-factly, before walking away.

DiSparrow headed back to hair-and-makeup in shock. Just hours before it had been a place of joy, with the team rejoicing with him about finally getting his break. Now it felt like a morgue. It was silent for the half hour it took for DiSparrow's alien makeup to be removed. (Sony, the studio that released "Men In Black: International," declined to comment for this story.)

He returned to his central London apartment wondering why he was even acting anymore.

DiSparrow said he's speaking out about his experience because he feels he has 'literally nothing to lose'

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DiSparrow in a "one-liner" role in "Pennyworth." Epix

DiSparrow, who is 36, is one of countless actors who head to television and movie sets around the world with a dream of making it big. The reality is, it likely won't happen.

The odds of being a movie star are about one in 1.5 million. (Yes, you're more likely to be struck by lightning.) But the draw of Tinsel Town keeps luring actors and extras back for a shot at fame.

Before his experience on the set of "Men In Black," DiSparrow was like so many others who think they're going to make it.

But he's changed his mind. "I feel like I have literally nothing to lose," he said when asked what it's like working as an actor during the pandemic.

Bullied growing up, DiSparrow fell in love with acting after discovering Jack Sparrow

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DiSparrow at age 4. Courtesy of Lukas DiSparrow

Looking back on his youth, DiSparrow called it a "nightmare."

For the first year of his life, he spent most of it in a hospital, in Nowy Sącz, Poland, after being diagnosed with meningitis. He bounced back and forth during his childhood, living in Barcice and Nowy Sącz, either running from bullies at school or staying away from family troubles at home. His imagination was his main source of entertainment.

"My favorite movie genre to this day is disaster movies," DiSparrow said. "So as a kid I would put pillows all over my room and pretend like it's the end of the world."

Speaking in public was his biggest fear. "I never really thought of acting as something I could ever do because everyone was tall and handsome," he said. "I was that short creature with the funny face, crooked teeth, and zero confidence."

At 21, DiSparrow moved to London with dreams of becoming a songwriter. Though he was now far from his childhood bullies, he ran into another problem: He didn't speak a word of English.

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DiSparrow said he taught himself the language in two years by translating his songs from Polish to English and covering his apartment with Post-it notes that had the English word for each item written on them.

"I came to London with £200. My mother thought I would stay for two weeks," he said. "Fourteen years later I'm still here."

In 2007, DiSparrow traded in his dreams of becoming a songwriter after working at a movie theater that was showing "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End."

"I saw Jack Sparrow and I was, like, 'I can do it,'" DiSparrow said. "The way Johnny Depp was weird, the facial expressions, that became my passion, to create characters and be somebody else other than me.

"I saw that movie like 54 times."

DiSparrow was 23, still broke, and had no idea how to get into movies. But he was determined to figure it out.

DiSparrow made it into 'Harry Potter' and didn't turn back

DiSparrow in his first work as an extra in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1." Warner Bros.

DiSparrow wasn't naive to the fact that he didn't have leading-man looks. With a pointy nose, crooked teeth, and thick Polish accent, he would have to work hard to get noticed.

"From the day I started I was told that I would never get leading parts," DiSparrow said. "I was a one-line actor."

But he wasn't going to be talked out of it. He wanted to act.

A roommate suggested he look into joining an agency that hires extras, background actors who don't have speaking parts. What DiSparrow didn't realize was the suggestion was coming at the perfect time.

Read more: 27 details you might have missed in the 'Harry Potter' movies

A week after joining, DiSparrow found work as an extra in 2010's "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1."

With franchise movies like "Harry Potter" and "Lord of the Rings" coming out of Hollywood, the output of tentpole movies - especially ones that required people with a certain look - would increase during that decade and beyond.

"Everything in the last 10 years has changed," Karen Etcoff, a background-casting director, told Insider. "Everyone wants younger and more realistic. We've gone away from the beautiful extras."

That made DiSparrow's look perfect for the world of "Harry Potter."

"I stood out because I was short and I had long white hair at the time," DiSparrow said. "Some people thought I was one of the 'Harry Potter' characters because I looked like something out of the book."

DiSparrow caught the eye of the assistant director on set, who often tried to get him in view of the camera during crowd shots. Weeks after his first stint as an extra, he was called back for "Deathly Hallows: Part 2," released in 2011, to be a stand-in, a person who subs for an on-camera actor before shooting begins, often for the purposes of lighting and camera setup.

Suddenly DiSparrow was on his way. He was an extra on "X-Men: First Class," also released in 2011, taking home a white towel he was given to dry off with while being on the movie's Auschwitz set in the pouring rain. Two years later, DiSparrow was cast in a one-line role on the British series "The Spa," in which he played a guy who finds himself in the wrong exercise class. That part got him an agent.

And before scoring his one-line gig on the 2019 series "Pennyworth," as a guy who gets kicked out of a club, he had a memorable experience on the set of "Beauty and the Beast" in 2017. For the Disney live-action remake, DiSparrow was a stand-in for the young prince in the opening bedroom scene.

That gig stands out for DiSparrow because he couldn't believe the respect director Bill Condon gave him.

"It was just a small scene," he said, but Condon took care with him, even though DiSparrow wasn't going to appear in the picture.

When he wasn't walking onto movie sets, the budding actor was also booked in commercials. Though DiSparrow wasn't making much - for one commercial he earned £3,000 ($4,000), with a percentage going to his agent - at least he was working.

Still, he said, despite his efforts, he'd only be seen as the guy with weird looks and thick accent, and that finally became unbearable.

'All I'll ever be is a one-liner'

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DiSparrow on the set of a commercial shoot. Courtesy of Lukas DiSparrow

DiSparrow vividly recalls the first moment he felt he was being unfairly excluded by the moviemaking system.

While working on one show (which he preferred not to name) he was asked to go over to the lead actor's trailer and help the British actor learn how to pronounce a few lines in Polish correctly.

"At that moment I realized everything they said was true: All I'll ever be is a one-liner," he said.

DiSparrow said the experience was his first realization that he wouldn't be considered for work even if the part required speaking in his native tongue. It's something he and other non-British actors have experienced in the London acting scene: Roles for foreigners are hard to come by.

"There are over 1 million Polish people in the UK, yet you don't see it on British TV," DiSparrow said. "I do hope five or 10 years from now we will be represented better on British TV, but the only way to make that happen is starting that conversation now."

Fellow London-based Polish actor Margot Przymierska said she's so convinced UK casting directors aren't looking for genuine Polish or Central European characters that she began to go into auditions using an over-the top-accent to get confirmation that casting was looking for the stereotype and not the reality.

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"Think Arnold Schwarzenegger in 'Red Heat,'" she told Insider in an email. "I went with that after a number of auditions where I came in with my natural accent - and I got a callback."

Several casting directors Insider spoke with denied that UK movie and TV productions give a preference to British actors, but they did say that work is just hard to come by for actors who are at DiSparrow's level. They added it's even more challenging when you have a thick accent like DiSparrow's.

DiSparrow said that in many ways he had to make the UK work for him. He never considered going back to Poland to see if he could find work there, and when asked why, he said it's because he's gay. (Poland has one of the worst LGBTQ-rights records in Europe.) He cannot get work in the US because he doesn't have the appropriate visa, he said.

DiSparrow eventually started to feel run down. In 2015 he scored a stand-in role on "Justice League," but hated the experience as "no one was given any proper direction" for the scene he starred in. Then, when he finally got his heart broken on the set of "Men in Black: International," in 2018, it felt like the final straw.

"At that moment I was just, like, 'Why do I bother?' I wait all these years to finally have my moment - this weird short guy - I finally get it and this happens."

Despite his better judgment, DiSparrow said he can't give up his dream of acting

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"I am an actor. It is in me, and I will do it and keep creating." Walter Vincenti Photography

DiSparrow said he's now at a crossroads.

Since the pandemic started, he's spent most of his days in his small apartment that he lives in rent-free after taking over landlord duties from the owner of the building years ago. Like many actors on the daily grind to find work - as day players and extras - he's patiently waiting for the industry to reach out for his services.

"What they are doing now is something called 'carrying,'" Etcoff said of how extras are getting work in the era of COVID-19. "Rather than hire people every day, they carry people for a week. So they are home, they can't take other work, and they come to set when needed. And most shows are using the same people over and over again. Not a lot of new people can be hired."

DiSparrow is a man lost in his memories and imagination, but filled with anger and helplessness.

"I'm just tired of feeling like a nobody," he said of his career as a one-line actor. "That's how they make you feel."

Around the Christmas holidays last year, DiSparrow said he went and got "one of those permanent-job things." He's now working as a mail carrier. In fact, it's the best steady pay he's ever had, he said.

Despite his new gig, DiSparrow said he can't walk away from acting. When he's not dropping off letters and boxes, he's making YouTube videos and writing a dark-comedy feature he plans to star in.

"I know I keep saying 'I give up on acting,' but it is not that. I am an actor. It is in me, and I will keep creating," he said. "Who knows what the future brings. I still have the hope of making it."

This story is part of Insider's State of Hollywood digital series, which details how the $100 billion entertainment industry shifted in 2020. Click here to read more.

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